Pre-school care, combining basic education with health and nutrition programmes, remains the missing link for millions of children in developing countries, and early childhood programmes can make for strong foundations and pay high dividends.
The UN’s cultural, educational and scientific organisation argues in its annual report on education that such programmes are key to cutting mortality among children and ensuring they achieve their full potential in later years.
Across the world in 2004, 37 per cent of children attended a nursery school – catering to pupils aged three to around six – compared to 17 per cent in 1975, a big increase but still a long way from UN objectives.
Care programmes aimed at very young children – under the age of three – are non-existent in more than half of countries, where toddlers remain in the sole care of their families or community, UNESCO said.
Yet in many developing countries, rising numbers of women at work, “migration, urbanisation and the HIV/AIDS pandemic are weakening ties between extended and nuclear families and creating child care needs that current arrangements do not meet,” the report warned.
Koichiro Matsuura, director-general of UNESCO, called in a statement for a high-level political drive to develop healthcare and education for the “youngest and most vulnerable children” — what the report calls the “forgotten link in the education chain”.
“Expanding and improving early childhood healthcare and education was one of six goals set at a UN conference in Dakar in 2000, focused on access to primary education, boy-girl disparities and adult literacy and training.
Some 10.5 million children a year continue to die from preventable diseases before age five, with sub-Saharan Africa, South and West Asia worst affected.
Among developing regions, Latin America tops the chart with 62 per cent of children in pre-school care, and has managed to reduce malnutrition and stunted growth among children thanks to early childhood programmes, said the report.
Sub-Saharan Africa lags at the bottom of the table, which just 12 per cent of children enrolled at a nursery school, against to 16 per cent in Arab countries, 32 per cent in South and West Asia and 35 per cent in East Asia and the Pacific.
In Europe and North America — due largely to the growing number of working women and single-parent families — pre-school care has become near universal.
Focusing on the poorest and most isolated areas, UNESCO called for countries to plough greater resources into early childhood care — which currently accounts, on average, for less than 10 per cent of education spending.